Max Ehrenfreund: Support for executions declining but still strong

07/29/2014 12:00 AM

07/28/2014 6:41 PM

Public support for the death penalty in the United States has declined, but it remains strong, with at least 60 percent of respondents in surveys saying that they favor capital punishment. Whether the public would support the kind of execution that the state of Arizona administered last Wednesday, in which a convicted murderer took two hours to die after a lethal injection, is another question, one that pollsters can’t yet answer.

As pharmaceutical companies have refused to supply states that carry out executions, corrections departments have been administering the death penalty with novel combinations of drugs. The death of Joseph Wood at a state prison in Florence, Ariz., was the most recent in a series of unsettling executions carried out with the new cocktails.

In April, Oklahoma botched the execution of Clayton Lockett, who died of a heart attack 43 minutes after what was supposed to have been a lethal injection. Witnesses said Lockett writhed, grimaced and appeared to clench his jaw during the execution. Polls conducted a few weeks afterward did not offer any conclusive evidence on whether the incident had affected public opinion.

A poll conducted by CBS News found that support for capital punishment had declined by 5 percentage points between last year and this May. Polls conducted by Gallup and the Washington Post-ABC News found no change in public attitudes.

Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport said he doubted that prolonged executions would alter public opinion. When supporters of the death penalty are asked why they are in favor, they tend to say condemned prisoners must pay for their crimes. “The fact that the killer suffered for one or two hours more at the end may not affect those underlying attitudes,” Newport said. “That’s the whole idea.”

This sentiment was apparently shared by the family of Wood’s victims. “This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, ‘let’s worry about the drugs,’” Richard Brown told the Associated Press. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?”

Americans’ views on the death penalty are not firm, however. Despite the fact that they generally support it, their responses in polls reveal ambivalence about the issue. When respondents in the Post-ABC poll were asked if they would prefer that prisoners receive capital punishment or life in prison without parole, a majority of respondents chose the life sentence.

“There’s just deep ambivalence about the death penalty in our society,” said Francis Cullen, a criminologist at the University of Cincinnati. “We do it with lethal injection, oftentimes at midnight, hiding it from people.”

Meanwhile, larger demographic and technological changes may be affecting how Americans think about capital punishment.

In 1994, fully 4 in 5 Americans were telling Gallup they were for the death penalty. The share of supporters has declined since then. The Pew Research Center has observed the same trend.

Cullen offered several possible explanations. Crime rates have fallen, and people might feel less threatened by criminal activity. Hispanics, who are less likely to support capital punishment than whites, make up more and more of the population. Since the advent of DNA forensics, genetic evidence has exonerated dozens of inmates on death row, which might also have influenced public opinion.

“Barring something horrible, some heinous crime, the long-term trend is going to be away from capital punishment,” Cullen said.

The legal costs and years of delays associated with death-penalty cases have likely added to public skepticism, said Richard Dieter, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a not-for-profit organization that maintains statistics on capital punishment. Indeed, the number of executions and death sentences annually has declined in tandem with public support for the death penalty. Several states have abolished or placed a moratorium on executions in the past few years.

“There’s not enough willpower, in a way, to push forward with each execution, especially when it ends in an embarrassing spectacle,” Dieter said.

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